A good outdoor speaker setup can sound great for several years or even more. And while installing outdoor speakers is something that, in most cases, is totally doable for the layperson, there’s still a fair amount that can go wrong if you’re not careful. This article will cover everything you need to know to get you up and running and rocking.
Preface – portable/wireless might actually be the way to go for some
Portable and/or completely wireless outdoor speakers have come a long way in the ten or so years since we started covering the outdoor speaker market on this site. Yes, traditionally wired and passive loudspeakers will still sound best, but portable/wireless speakers can sound decently close, and maybe good enough for your purposes. And the obvious upside is that they can be cheaper and a lot simpler and easier to deal with.
Not only are there now many portable and wireless outdoor loudspeakers that are as big, loud, and powerful as many of the popular wired/permanent outdoor speakers, they can sync together and function as a unit (left/right stereo for example) just as regular wired speakers would.
Part 1 – Planning an Outdoor Speaker System
Planning out your system and setup beforehand is a critical part of the process. The last thing you want is to realize mid set up, after already having spent time and money, that the speakers don’t actually do what you want them to, or that you’re missing a necessary piece of ancillary equipment, or that the arrangement you want isn’t actually going to logistically work in your yard, etc. etc.
We’re going to cover the common oversights people have, as well as every important factor that needs to be planned with any outdoor speaker setup.
What is an outdoor speaker, actually?
It’s simply a loudspeaker that’s built to withstand outdoor elements – to a reasonable degree – as well as perform in an outdoor, open air environment.
The cabinets will be specifically treated to keep moisture, dust, and other stuff out of and away from the magnets, coils, and other electronic parts of the speaker. The woofers will be made out of some sort of polymer usually that wont get warped by elemental exposure like traditional paper, cloth, or metallic woofers would.
The response curve is also typically more bass emphasized since long bass soundwaves in particular are prone to degradation outside and also because people usually don’t opt for an outdoor subwoofer.
Can I make “regular” indoor speakers into outdoor speakers?
NO. Do not try to do this. Even if you’re only using so called regular speakers outdoors intermittently and in fair weather, and you’ve maybe jerry rigged some kind of protection for them, you’re still going to inevitably run into problems.
First of all, sound behaves differently outdoors, in the open air and with no insulating walls. Outdoor speakers are designed to perform in this kind of environment, whereas regular speakers are designed to perform in an enclosed room with walls that usually have some kind of treatment.
Moreover, outdoor speakers are designed to withstand, in addition to the obvious, the more subtle outdoor elements that regular speakers are not – moisture in the air, sunlight, dust, daily temperature fluctuation, etc. Though these things may seem innocuous, they will absolutely degrade and damage a regular speaker in a way that will most certainly not be covered by its respective warranty.
So, again, do not use regular speakers outdoors – there are now a plethora of specifically designed outdoor speakers to choose from that will sound better outdoors anyhow.
Choosing the right outdoor speakers, things to consider
This is an in-depth topic on its own, and we indeed have an entire article dedicated to it which you can check out here. That said, we’ll succinctly summarize the important factors here:
Passive vs active:
Passive speakers need to be connected to an amplifier or receiver with speaker wire. Active speakers have amplifiers built into them, and instead need to simply be plugged into a standard wall socket like most electronics you’re probably used to.
Most speakers are passive, and it wasn’t too long ago that there were not that many active outdoor speakers on the market (having built-in active electronics with outdoor anything poses a bunch of potential problems). But a lot of active outdoor speakers have recently come out that are quite good and on par with their passive counterparts.
If you can’t or would rather not deal with feeding speaker wire through a drilled hole in the wall, and you have an outside wall socket you can plug right into, and you don’t need the speakers to be too far away from it, then active speakers might be a good, convenient option.
However, choosing active can significantly limit your setup options and product. If you’re looking to create a real HiFi multi-channel system for the long run, and you’re willing to do a little extra work to set it up, then passive speakers are definitely the way to go.
Power handling and efficiency:
This mainly determines how loud a speaker can get.
Frequency response range/curve:
This determines how well and evenly a speaker can produce sound across the high pitches to the low ones. Of particular importance to outdoor speakers is a good/low response floor because bass is particularly prone to degradation outdoors and adding/using an outdoor subwoofer is less common.
Level of weather resistance/proofing:
Some outdoor speakers are merely intended to handle inclement weather intermittently, while others have full blown military grade resistance to pressurized water and dust or even salt water spray.
It’s particularly important to have sufficient coverage when potentially dealing with all-weather related issues. 1-2 years is fairly standard for budget equipment, but higher end passive outdoor speakers can have 5 or even more years of coverage.
In addition to traditional box speakers there are now all kinds of environmental “boulder” style speakers and plant-pot speakers that sit on the ground.
Here’s a link again to our outdoor speakers roundup article where we discuss these factors and product choices in much deeper detail.
Do I need a separate amplifier or receiver for my outdoor speakers?
You will if you opt for passive speakers. Check out our article here which covers everything you need to know for choosing an amp or receiver for outdoor speakers.
How many outdoor speakers do you need, if more than the main two?
This is largely a function of how much area you want to cover. If you’re merely looking to cover a small deck/patio style area not much bigger than 100-200 square feet than a single pair of speakers is probably fine. Each 10-15 extra feet you move out will need another speaker if you want to maintain consistent sound.
How far apart should two main outdoor speakers be?
This will be somewhat determined for you by the constraints of your patio, deck, or what have you, as well as the realistic places where you can actually mount the speakers, but most popular/decent outdoor speakers are intended to roughly have 8-12 feet of separation.
What other pieces of equipment and parts do I need for outdoor speakers to function?
Active outdoor speakers can generally plug in and play right out of the box, and pretty much all of them have Bluetooth and can wirelessly sync directly to any compatible source.
Passive speakers will need an amplifier or receiver to power them, as well as outdoor grade speaker wire to connect the two.
What length/thickness/gauge/type of speaker wire do I need?
The primarily important thing is that you get outdoor speaker wire that has a CL2 or CL3 rating, which means it can safely go through a wall. If you plan to bury the wire it additionally needs to be rated specifically for direct burial.
For length, we recommend measuring out the planned run with string then adding at least 15% to that for insurance. It’s always better to have way too much wire than not enough. Keep in mind you might want extra slack if you subsequently decide to move your speakers further out.
Power will naturally dissipate over longer runs, which can be countered with thicker wire (i.e. lower gauge), but this realistically won’t come significantly into play unless you’re doing very long runs of 100+ feet.
As long as the speaker wire has the certifications and specs you need, just get the cheapest one. Cable is cable and is almost always made out of copper, and so called “premium” speaker cables are just marketing hype.
We have a full guide on outdoor speaker wire with tailored search/buying links here.
Now that you’ve picked the right equipment and have everything you need, lets get into the actual installation process:
Part 2 – Installing An Outdoor Speaker System
How to assign/position left/right outdoor speakers
Most main left/right channel speakers aren’t actually directionally oriented and are identical to one another, so it doesn’t matter which one you put on the left or right. What does matter is that the designated left/right speaker is connected to the corresponding respective left/right terminal on your amplifier or receiver:
If you manage to mix the left/right wires up somehow it’s easy enough to swap them on the receiver. Color coding your wires with multi colored tape before you run them is definitely a good idea.
How to connect/power/wire passive outdoor speakers
It’s done exactly the same as with regular passive speakers: you simply connect speaker wire to the positive/negative terminals to the corresponding positive/negative terminals on the amplifier or receiver.
How to connect outdoor speakers to a receiver or amplifier indoors
This is the pretty clear crux with a passive speaker set up, because the wiring ultimately needs to go through a hole in your wall to get inside and ultimately to the amplifier or receiver, and if a hole doesn’t yet exist, it will need to get drilled.
You should first check to see if a hole might already be there, perhaps that runs connections to an outdoor appliance you already have – it’s easier to open and re-caulk an existing hole than drill a new one.
Do not just indiscriminately drill a hole through the wall – you might inadvertently hit a pipe, electric wire, or gas line, any of which can result in catastrophe.
Also: do not just run speaker wire through the door, window, or any other such opening – it might seem easy and tempting, but doing that can also result in disaster. If a speaker wire gets pinched it can cause the speaker to stop functioning properly. Moreover, a wire running on the ground through a back door in the context of a patio party is just waiting for someone to trip on it, injure themselves, yank and damage speaker or receiver terminals, and so on.
You only have to drill that hole once, so, be sure to do it properly and safely. Or, this is the one part of the job where we’d say it might be prudent to just hire a professional.
How to mount outdoor speakers
While outdoor speakers are built to withstand the elements to various degrees, it’s still a good idea to give them any natural protection that you can. Tuck the speaker under the eaves of your roof if possible, and also put them overhead so that you can angle them down, which will naturally prevent water or dust from falling into and collecting on the face of the speaker.
What can I safely attach speaker mounts to?
A common outdoor box speaker can weigh ten or more pounds, so it’s important that the material the mount is attached to is sturdy enough to support that.
Safe/OK material for outdoor speaker wall mounts:
- solid wood
Unsafe/not OK material for speaker wall mounts:
- aluminum siding
- cedar siding
Can I just put outdoor speakers on the ground?
You can, and they’ll perform fine, but it’s not ideal for two reasons mainly: one, they might get in the way and/or get kicked, and two, because you’ll have to angle them up which makes the face more vulnerable to accumulated water and/or debris. If you cannot mount or elevate the speakers for whatever reason, we recommend choosing a rock/environmental or other such speaker that’s designed to rest on the ground.
Can you add Bluetooth to passive wired outdoor speakers?
Yes, very easily. Most receivers and amps have built-in Bluetooth at this point, but if they don’t, you can get a simple adapter for not much money.
Where do I put the amp/receiver for outdoor speakers?
The receiver or amplifier should remain indoors. That’s where they’re intended to be, and we’ve never seen a marketed “outdoor” receiver or amplifier.
How much will it cost to hire a professional to install outdoor speakers?
If you paid for a professional to do everything with a more involved set up, you could be looking at a full day’s worth of labor that would probably run a few hundred dollars at a bare minimum. That might certainly be a worthwhile cost for some in exchange for the support and peace of mind you’d get with a good company, but we’d say that’s an unnecessary cost for most people.
The only possible steps discussed herein that might not be trivial to a nonprofessional is drilling a hole through the wall for the wire to run through, and perhaps drilling holes in the wall for mounting brackets to a lesser extent. You could easily hire a professional, one that wouldn’t even necessarily need audio knowledge, to just do either of those things for you at a fraction of the cost.
Part 3 – Properly Maintaining An Outdoor Speaker System
While outdoor speakers are designed to withstand the elements, they are not completely indestructible. There are a few things you should be aware of and/or do at a minimum to ensure their lifespan isn’t cut short.
How to adequately protect outdoor speakers from rain and other elements
If you’re able to mount the speakers under a roof eaves or something similar, to give it some overhead protection, that would be ideal.
Keep the baffle/grill angled downward so water and residue can’t accumulate onto anything. Even if you need to angle them up while in use, make it a point to angle them back down when you’re done.
If you don’t plan on using them for an extended period of time, or you’re about to receive a particularly bad bout of weather like a snow storm, it’s prudent to disconnect them and bring them inside. This is where banana plugs with make life easier.
How to clean outdoor speakers
Use a soft rag to wipe off any accumulated dust, debris, dew, etc. It’s also a good idea to remove the grills and wipe down both the inside and outside. Inspect the drivers when you remove the grill and use a can of compressed air to remove similar residue if needed
How to keep birds and other critters off and away from outdoor speakers
Electronics, particularly those that are strategically insulated from the environment to a degree, are prime real estate for bird nests and other such habitation. It’s not a bad idea to fasten some bird spikes to the top of a mounted outdoor speaker.
How long can/will outdoor speakers last?
A decent set that’s reasonably well maintained can easily last several years to a decade and probably even longer. Some of the currently most popular outdoor speakers and products we recommend were originally released over ten years ago and are still going strong. And there’s no reason the wire and other ancillary equipment can’t last that long either. So, putting in the initial effort to get your set up right is most definitely worth it.
Interested in looking for some actual gear? Check out these articles below: